Like many entrepreneurs, I knew from an early age that I wanted to work for myself. I saw my Dad start to build his business up from scratch during my early teenage years, and this was a big inspiration to me. He was stuck in a 9-5 that he didn’t really enjoy, and kept him away from the house for long hours during the week. I had a number of small money making ventures through high school (as well as heaps of holiday jobs, which is another blog post unto itself), but I remember deciding in my first year of University that I was going to own and run my own company one day. I made the decision one day after much thought to start a couple of businesses once (call me crazy) to test the waters and see where the demand was.
Back in 1997 I was working for the local pizza shop, the late nights driving around pizza for minimum wage, using my own money for petrol was looking less and less attractive as the weeks wore on. That, and also the fact that my car, clothes and even myself started smelling like burnt mozzarella and tomato paste. It was time to make a change, so that’s what I did.
The two businesses that I started were IT Support / Tutoring, and then in addition a Web Design business. I had the skills and expertise for both, and was moderately good with people so the customer service aspect came naturally to me. In fact to this day, I would recommend that young people in or just out of high school with moderately good computer skills give one of those business models a go just to wet their ears in the business game. Do it while the stakes are low and you can afford to fail. Failure in business should not be seen as a sign of weakness, but of a valuable lesson learnt.
Both of these business models have incredibly low outlay, but also a low barrier to entry which makes them a great training ground to get the fundamentals down. It is however a hard long term proposition to build a significant business around these models without radically ups calling the business or knowing about outsourcing. For my 18- 19 year old brain, it took a while to get my head around those concepts, and the marketplace soon caught up with big players moving into town.
The two businesses started off quite successfully, due more to incredible market demand at that time, and I worked really hard to get the first clients through the door. I started up volunteering for a couple of local community websites, made friends with a few local traders and business groups and spoke at their meetings. I also placed fliers up on some local message boards at the supermarket and in shop windows. Business started to do well, although i was massively undercharging for my time.
As time went on, I faced all of the challenges that a solo entrepreneur in a new field will come across. Offline business that are time dependent and not set up correctly from the outset are hard to grow, and hard to acquire new customers once you get to a certain level of being ‘flat out’ busy. I was young, and because I was not really charging a huge amount for my services it was hard to employ others and still maintain any level of profitability. I was also getting tied up in client management, non paying clients and very long sales cycles which put pressures on cash flow. Juggling all of this with full time University studies taught me some great time management skills, but also the importance of knowing when to concentrate your resources on the most effective course of action. Something had to give…
The Service / Tutoring business was the first to go, as being onsite with clients was less cost effective than doing web design and development from my home. Once that work was gone, I concentrated on getting more web development clients. By this stage (around 2000) things were getting tougher to find new clients. Every man and his dog was a “web designer” by that stage, so the quaint marketing methods that I initially used were not as effective. Leaflet drops did nothing, and cold calling did yield some results (and develop some great sales skills) but was very time intensive.
These days cold calling is an even harder game. You are trying to cut through the noise and deliver the signal that your offering is worthy and better than the last 10 jokers that called them and promised the earth.
The jobs that I was getting were from word of mouth referrals, direct enquiries from my website ( I had some great SEO rankings in those days for web design and development terms) and through some of the business associations. These were good, but not enough to make the level of income that I really needed to set me up in life. The kind of web design and development work I was doing were one off contracts for full sites or site makeovers. I did not have a large number of regular clients on recurrent billing like I do now.
What we really needed in those days were social media and decent PPC marketing like AdWords. With those tools, and the availability of reliable outsourced workers my business would have thrived. Sadly, these first few forays finished around 2001 when I sold the web design part of my business, and went into the corporate world for the next 5 years.
But that is another story for another day….
So what are the takeaways from this rambling tale of early business fortune and misadventure?
1) You now have massively useful marketing tools at your disposal, with the opportunity to get in front of thousands of targeted, hot, ‘ready to buy’ prospects every day. Don’t forget how lucky you are to be starting out now.
2) It is easier than ever to utilise traditional sources of leads and sales (networks and referrals) due to social media and the power of blogging
3) Everything is a test. If you are in doubt about your business idea or model and being held back by inaction the best thing to do is start. Don’t die wondering, get out there and give it a go. The marketplace will soon tell you how good your idea is, and how viable the business model is. While a lot of business success is about planning and developing a deep and comprehensive strategy, the most important thing when just starting out is view everything as an experiment. It is important to test and measure everything, and if what you are offering is not finding an audience, then consider that market research and bring out version 2, or start completely from scratch.
Til next time,
Former Web Designer & Tech Support